Another story of how Boston’s Patriot leaders got early intelligence of the British march on 18 Apr 1775 credits a stable-worker in the center of town. The circumstances of this story are hazy, and it developed over time, but here’s as far back as I’ve been able to trace it.
Samuel A. Drake’s Old Landmarks and Historic Personages of Boston (1873) says:
A groom at the Province House [the royal governor’s mansion, shown here] dropped into the stables, then opposite the Old South on Milk Street, for a social chat with a stable-boy employed there. The news was asked of the British jockey, who, misconceiving the sentiments of his friend, replied, that he had overheard a conversation between [Gen. Thomas] Gage and other officers, and observed, “There will be hell to pay to-morrow.” This was immediately carried to Paul Revere, who enjoined silence on his informant, and added, “You are the third person who has brought me the same information.”As usual, Drake didn’t provide a source for his anecdotes. He recorded this one over a decade after Henry W. Longfellow had made Revere famous as carrier of the news of that march. Revere wrote nothing about such a discussion in his 1798 letter about the day to the Rev. Jeremy Belknap.
The next year, Drake expanded on the story in Historic Fields and Mansions of Middlesex, adding a name:
John Ballard was the hostler at the stables on the corner of Milk and old Marlborough Streets, to whom the groom imparted the intelligence that “there would be hell to pay to-morrow”; but even he little thought how prophetic his language would become. Ballard was a liberty boy, but his informant did not suspect it. His hand trembled so much with excitement that he could hardly hold his curry-comb. Begging his friend to finish the horse he was cleaning, and feigning some forgotten errand, Ballard left the stable in haste. Not daring to go directly to Revere’s house, he went to that of a well known friend of liberty in Ann Street, who carried the news to Revere.Drake’s first book had mentioned a man named John Ballard twice: once in regard to the “Paddock elms” planted along the edge of the Common beside Tremont Street, and once as proprietor of the British Coffee-House. But it hadn’t linked him to this anecdote.
In 1875, George William Curtis delivered a centennial oration at Concord that repeated Drake’s story about John Ballard and his trembling hand; that oration was reprinted many times over the following decades. Three years after that, in the privately published William Dawes and His Ride with Paul Revere, Henry Holland wrote:
On the afternoon of the day before the attack, [Dr. Joseph] Warren learned from several sources that the British were about to move. A gunsmith named Jasper got it from a British sergeant, and told Colonel [Josiah] Waters, of the Committee of Safety,—Dawes’s cousin; and he, of course, told Warren at once. John Ballard, in the Milk Street stable, heard one of the Province House grooms say that “there would be hell to pay to-morrow,” and made a pretext to run with the news to a friend of liberty on Ann Street (William Dawes, I think), who carried it to Revere, who told him he had already heard it from two other persons.Holland’s version of events is, you might notice, quite Dawes-centric. He was a descendant of that Patriot.
Many authors have repeated variations of this story. But is it reliable? In particular, should we trust these authors’ identification of John Ballard as a source of information?
TOMORROW: Who is John Ballard? (Or, to be more accurate, who are John Ballard?)